In general, my heart sinks when I have to go to a musical. I’ve rarely come across a piece of music theatre from the last 50 years where the quality of the music and lyrics has lived up to the ambition of the production as a whole. The two big Korean musicals that have shown in London in the past 10 years have been good examples of this: over-ambitious, over-plotted and over-long, they have been unwieldy beasts with a noisy but completely unmemorable score.1
So it was with a reluctant sense of duty that I went along to Gumok, billed as “a new musical”. The fact that the piece tells the story of a Korean “Comfort Woman” didn’t help. How in-your-face was it going to be? How strident was it going to be in demanding (rightly) proper restitution from the Japanese? Knowing how good the Koreans are at doing melodrama, were my heart-strings going to be pulled, twisted, mangled beyond recognition before I was allowed out?
My concerns were completely unfounded on every point. The production was plain, simple, and direct. The story was told without embellishment, with very little attempt to appeal to the audience’s emotions. Surprisingly little anger was directed at the Japanese. In fact, the play could almost be accused of not being anti-Japanese enough.
The play starts with three 14-year-old girls innocently playing together: rock scissors paper, hide and seek, grandmother’s footsteps – the sort of game children everywhere used to play before the invention of video games. As they play together, a truck draws up and offers them a ride. “Please, take me!” “No, take me!” the girls all cry. Of course it is a truck ride from which they will never return. But to a Japanese apologist, the innocent trust of the girls clamouring to get into the truck could be used to support the distasteful claim that the girls were all “volunteers”.
The girls are told that they will be taken to a factory where they will earn lots of money. They don’t want to earn money. They ask to be taken home, and get threatened with death if they don’t stop crying.
As they come to realise that they are prisoners, the bodily movements of the three girls become mechanical. They pace the inside of the truck, or the hold of the ship, slowly, like robots, as if all humanity and life has been taken from them. And then, finally, they arrive at a military camp and take up residence in the Comfort Station.
“He grabbed me, he touched me, he lifted up my skirt.” This section of the play is the centre of the drama, and of the trauma, as three young girls are forced to have sex, first with the Japanese general, then with thirty or forty soldiers a day, or up to a hundred at weekends. “He grabbed me, he touched me, he lifted up my skirt,” they repeat. “Grab, touch, lift. Grab, touch, lift,” in an endless cyclical reliving of the nightmare.
The three actresses managed the transition from innocent care-free young girls at the start of the play, to traumatised victims at this dramatic climax, tremendously well. Dressed in identical black and white hanbok, with identical hairstyles (similar in style to that of the Comfort Woman statue placed opposite the Japanese embassy in Seoul), they stand for every innocent Korean girl that was kidnapped into sexual slavery by the Japanese during the war. They all looked 14 years old or less, though the actual ages of the three actresses ranged from 19 to 26.
Their story in the play follows the standard trajectory of the life of a Comfort Woman, as documented in countless testimonies given by survivors (for example as set out in True Stories of the Korean Comfort Women). There was no exaggeration of the facts in this play. There did not need to be. There was no over-emotionalising. All the emotion shown on stage flowed simply and naturally from the facts of the narrative.
The music fitted the objectives well, never getting in the way. Most of the time, it was just in the background, and (if I remember correctly) there were only two songs: one, a distantly remembered lullaby; the other a would-be love song for an imagined lover. These were sung plainly, without amplification, by an actress with a natural, untrained voice. This was perfect, because the whole point of the play was that these young girls were innocent, exploited and vulnerable. A belting anthem would have been completely out of place. Full marks, then, for making the music the servant of the message.
The girls meet their end in an air raid, and then comes a surprising turn: Gumok returns to us, dressed all in white, with long dank hair no longer in a schoolgirl bob. Behind her is projected a landscape with a long winding road along which she has travelled. Looking like the typical vengeful ghost from a Korean or Japanese horror film, she walks slowly and unsteadily towards us. And then the atmosphere subtly changes. From deathly silence, music starts2. The ghost comes to life and starts dancing a solo dance of reconciliation and exorcism which seems to be inspired by traditional Buddhist and shamanistic dance as the ghost’s long white sleeves come into use, as in a seungmu. It’s a dance of hope for the future, or for the next life, as the soul floats free from the body like a butterfly, and brings the audience back from the depths after we have followed the girls through their traumatic end.
“I wanted to love someone. I wanted to be a mother. To be a wife. To be a woman,” is one of the final lines of Gumok in the play. There could be no more poignant statement of a normal young girl’s hopes. Stated simply, sensitively and powerfully, like the play as a whole. It was all over quickly, like these young girls’ lives.